- - Thursday, February 28, 2019

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Washington Nationals fans are about to find out that the next best thing to rooting for Bryce Harper is rooting against him.

You may have chosen to ignore it during his seven years in Washington, but there is no greater villain in baseball than Bryce Harper. Opposing fans hate him. Opposing players hate him. Umpires hate him. Fellow teammates haven’t been too crazy about him.

Heck his new team, the Philadelphia Phillies, hated Harper the first time they saw him play in 2012. Remember Cole Hamels plunking Harper on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball”? “I think unfortunately the league’s protecting certain players and making it not that old-school, prestigious way of baseball,” Hamels said.

This was Bryce Harper’s eighth major league baseball game — eighth! And he had already made enemies.

They hated him when he was a Sports Illustrated cover boy at 16.

They hated him for being young, arrogant, flashy and talented — some would say overrated.

He was literally voted the most overrated player in baseball by other players in an ESPN The Magazine poll in 2015 — the same year he would go on to win the National League Most Valuable Player with a .330 average, 42 home runs, 99 RBI, 118 runs scored and an on-base percentage of .460.

They hated him for not running out ground balls — one former Washington Nationals player in particular. Jonathan Papelbon choked Harper in the Nationals’ dugout in the final days of the 2015 season in full view of everyone (except, apparently, manager Matt Williams).

Teammates privately were rooting for Papelbon.

Not that Harper was a bad teammate. But, in the Nationals’ clubhouse, he was sometimes seen as an annoyance and exhausting. His presence outside the room was greater than it was inside.

Of course, now they’ll love him in Philadelphia, which, based on the 13-year, no-trade, no opt-out $330 million contract he reportedly has agreed to, will be the place where Harper’s career will be celebrated or buried.

If he brings World Series glory to the Phillies, they will shout his name from the Art Museum steps to the Italian Market.

Anything less — like his less-than-dazzling postseasons in Washington (. 211 batting average in 19 games, never carrying the team past the first round in four division series) — and they’ll spit out his name at every Septa stop along the transit line.

They will hate him in Philadelphia if he is not Mike Trout, the South Jersey fan favorite and arguably the best player in the game who will become a free agent after the 2020 season.

Give Harper’s agent and maestro, Scott Boras, credit. Against the odds, he managed to conjure up a feeding frenzy for his client in the final days, drawing the Los Angeles Dodgers (where Nationals officials believed Harper would wind up) and the San Francisco Giants into the fight for Harper’s services with the Phillies.

Without the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox involved, it is hard to have this kind of historic bidding war.

The numbers will be debated and twisted to suit each side. It is the largest contract in pro team sports history at $330 million, just squeezing past Giancarlo Stanton’s $325 million mark.

But the annual salary of $25.4 million is the 14th highest in baseball history — likely not what Harper and Boras had in mind in the years leading up to this.

His free agency seemed inevitable from the day Harper arrived in Washington, the clock ticking every day toward departure. It was like an out-of-control locomotive in the final days of the 2018 season.

He didn’t have to leave. The Nationals did what they could to keep him, meeting with him in the clubhouse before he became a free agent and presenting him with a 10-year, $300 million contract — good until he hit the market.

Again, those numbers may not be what they appeared to be.

The Nationals’ offer included considerable deferred money, which has been the way the Lerner family, the team’s owners, have operated. But the Lerners signed two Boras clients, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, to long-term contracts with large chunks of deferred money.

The Phillies offer reportedly has no deferred money, but if you profess your love for Washington like Harper repeatedly did, it would seem when you get the money would not be a deal breaker.

“I think about other cities, but I love it here,” Harper told reporters in his final days last season in Washington. “My heart lies here.”

He has apparently deferred that love in favor of cash. And the heart? The cost of an Amtrak ride up the road to the 30th Street Station.

See how easy it is to hate him already?

Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast every Tuesday and Thursday.

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